Climate change has the potential for a wide range of implications and consequences. It is important for government institutions to consider the possible outcomes and prepare contingencies for a changing climate and environment. As a Washington resident, I am concerned that the state continues to work to reduce carbon emissions and prepare for changes in climate. In response to the threat of climate change, Washington developed the Integrated Climate Response Strategy in 2012 to explore and prepare for affects in areas such as human health, ecosystems, coastlines, water resources, agriculture, forests and infrastructure based upon varying degrees of severity and forecast models (Adelsman and Ekrem 2010).
Although the Climate Response Strategy covers many areas, I will focus the discussion primarily on the expected problems with energy management and water resource management due to declining snowpack levels and warmer temperatures. Overall, warming temperatures will likely produce drier summers and warmer, wetter winters for the Pacific Northwest (Mote and Salathe 2010). The spring snowpack is forecasted to decrease significantly over the next several decades (Mote and Salathe 2010). Current projections estimate that average snowpack levels will decrease 37-44% by the 2040s and 53-65% by the 2080s (Elsner et al. 2010). As a result, stream runoffs will be higher during times of lower water demand in the winter and lower stream runoffs during times of higher demand in the summer (Adelsman and Ekrem 2010).
The snowpack and glaciers serve as a “natural reservoir” of freshwater, help maintain adequate stream runoff, and provide a supply water during the drier summer months (Adelsman and Ekrem 2010). Snowmelt and stream runoff in the Pacific Northwest supplies water for the irrigation of crops, supports the use of hydroelectric power, and maintains the environment required for the freshwater lifecycle of salmon (Adelsman and Ekrem 2010).
Food and agriculture are critical to the Washington economy and American agricultural production. Washington is the third largest exporter of food and agricultural products. The agriculture industry is valued over $7 billion and accounts for 12% of the Washington economy (Adelsman and Ekrem 2010). Approximately 1.8 billion acres are under irrigation, and reduced snowpack levels are expected to impact yields in the Yakima, Columbia, and Walla Walla basins (Adelsman and Ekrem 2010). In order to account for the changing environment, Washington invests in research to drought resistant crops, instating programs to improve efficiencies in irrigation and water conveyance, and promotes legislation to increase flexibility for water right holders transfer (Adelsman and Ekrem 2010).
Washington’s power generation is particularly vulnerable to the changes in snowpack level. Currently, hydroelectric power supplies approximately 66% of Washington’s electricity needs (Adelsman and Ekrem 2010). However, the reduction in snowpack levels is anticipated to reduce the summer hydroelectric power output while electricity demand rises from higher air conditioning costs (Adelsman and Ekrem 2010). Natural gas plants are used to account for the the larger difference between the seasonal peaks and troughs until solar, wind, and biomass can be scaled up the required output (Adelsman and Ekrem 2010).
Reduced stream flows and warmer stream temperatures risk destroying the freshwater salmon habitat, affecting a critical industry to the Pacific Northwest (Mantua et al 2010). In order to minimize the loss of habitat and economic impact, the state must actively manage the water supply by balancing energy production, irrigation requirements, and maximize stream flow levels for cold water fish (Adelsman and Ekrem 2010). Additionally, Washington is exploring options to increase shade and foliage around key tributaries to mitigate the rise in water temperature (Adelsman and Ekrem 2010).
In order to mitigate the negative impact from climate change, governments, non-profits, and businesses alike must broadly consider how the effects of climate change will be realized. The simple exercise of observing just the implications of reduced snowpack demonstrates how complicated and wide reaching the problem of climate change actually is. Washington state should continue to research potential problems and solutions to mitigate future problems.
Adelsman, H., and J. Ekrem. 2012. Preparing for a changing climate: Washington State’s Integrated Climate Response Strategy.
Elsner, M.M., L. Cuo, N. Voisin, J. Deems, A.F. Hamlet, J.A. Vano, K.E.B. Mickelson, S.Y. Lee, and D.P. Lettenmaier. 2010. Implications of 21st century climate change for the hydrology of Washington State. Climatic Change 102(1-2):225-260
Mantua, N.J., I. Tohver, and A.F. Hamlet. 2010. Climate change impacts on streamflow extremes and summertime stream temperature and their possible consequences for freshwater salmon habitat in Washington State. Climatic Change 102(1-2): 187-223
Mote, P.W., and E.P. Salathe. 2010. Future climate in the Pacific Northwest. Climactic Change 102(1-2): 29-50
Salathe, E.P., L.R. Leung, Y. Qian, and Y. Zhang. 2010 Regional climate model projections for the State of Washington. Climatic Change 102(1-2): 51-75